The Interpersonal Level: Gender as a Cue
Gender cues are used to tell us how to behave toward others in social interactions, although much of this sex-differential treatment happens outside awareness. The behavior of men and boys is often evaluated more positively than the behavior of women and girls. Even when a woman and a man behave in identical ways, their behavior may be interpreted differently (Crawford, 1988; Porter & Geis, 1981; Wallston & O’Leary, 1981; Wiley & Eskilson, 1982; Yarkin, Town, & Wallston, 1982).
Moreover, sexual categorization is not simply a way of seeing differences, but a way of creating differences. When men and women are treated
differently in ordinary daily interactions, they may come to behave differently in return. Thus, gender can be conceived as a self-fulfilling prophecy —a set of processes by which gender difference is created, the observed differences are conflated with sex, and belief in sex difference is confirmed.
An example of self-fulfilling prophecies in conversational interaction comes from a laboratory social psychology experiment1 (Snyder, Tanke, & Berscheid, 1977). Male college students were shown a photograph of a woman who was either conventionally attractive or unattractive, and they then had a short telephone conversation with her. The men were unaware that there was no relationship between the photograph they saw and the woman they talked to. The women, in turn, were unaware that their conversational partners had received any information about their heterosexual attractiveness. Nevertheless, judges who later heard only the women’s part of the conversations rated those women who had been talked to as though they were attractive as more friendly, sociable, and likable than those who had been talked to as though they were unattractive.
By abstracting some features of social interaction from their normal context, the study shows how social actors can create their own social reality even in brief encounters. Presumably, men who thought they were interacting with attractive women spoke in ways that cued more socially engaged and friendly behaviors from their conversational partners, perhaps because they shared the widespread belief that “what is beautiful is good” (Dion, Berscheid, & Walster, 1972). The men produced the behaviors they expected through their talk and probably confirmed their belief in a link between attractiveness and positive personality traits in women. Yet the traits they believed in were produced by their own modes of social interaction.
At the interactional level, conversational humor about sex and heterosexual relationships can function to create and maintain gender relations, and, under some conditions, to subvert them. The key to understanding how these constructions of gender and sexuality are accomplished is that people use humor to convey messages that they can then deny, or develop further, depending on how the message is received. Because it is indirect and allusive, humor protects the joker from the consequences that his or her statement would have if conveyed more directly and seriously. For this reason, initial sexual overtures are often made in humorous ways—
‘Feminists are critical of the construct of attractiveness as it has been used in social psychological research. It objectifies women and privileges heterosexuality. This study certainly exemplifies those limitations, as well as demonstrating the manipulation and deception of research participants. Although the experiment exemplifies many weaknesses of a positivist approach to knowledge generation, I cite it here as a compelling example of how self-fulfilling prophecies are created in social interaction. As 1 have argued elsewhere, it is one of the paradoxes we live with that static, decontextualized laboratory research can be useful in exposing dynamic, context-dependent social constructions (cf. Crawford & Unger, in press, chapter 3.)
a big part of flirting consists of joking comments that assess the potential partner’s availability without committing either partner to follow up (Mul – kay, 1988).
Other sensitive topics, too, are brought into conversation through humor. In medical settings, humor enables staff and patients to interact around the topics of fear, pain, and even death. Franca Pizzini (1991) analyzed humor generated in 100 observations of conversations surrounding childbirth in the maternity wards of five hospitals in Milan, Italy. Pizzini noted the topic of humor, its initiators and targets, and the social functions it served. She found that most humor in the childbirth setting functions to introduce the two taboo topics related to birth: pain and sex. Even as they work on the sexual parts of a woman’s body, the staff are not permitted to openly connect what is happening to her with sexual activity. Nor are they taught to openly acknowledge her pain. Therefore, both topics are dealt with in the humor mode, where the talk “need not become part of the history of the encounter, nor need it be. . . built into the meaning of subsequent acts. Because humor officially does not count, persons are induced to risk sending messages that would be unacceptable if stated seriously" (Pizzini, 1991, p. 481).
In the birth episodes, there were jokes about the woman’s vagina, with medical staff interpreting suturing of an episiotomy as “making it new again,” or “tailoring.” Pain was sexualized in remarks that encoded both taboo topics:
A woman became taut with pain during post-partum cleaning and the nurse said with a smile: “Do you act this way when your husband touches you too?” The patient shook her head in disagreement. A nurse said: “Naughty girl, when her husband touches her she’s all relaxed, but when we touch her she gets tense!” (Pizzini, 1991, p. 481)
People choose indirect speech styles in delicate situations. Indirectness can save face, minimize accountability for one’s actions, and slip taboo topics into conversation. Humor is perhaps the most flexible and powerful of indirect modes, and sexually focused encounters perhaps the most complex of interpersonal situations. It is not surprising that people so often cope with sexual ambiguity, vulnerability, and danger by using humor. Nor is it surprising that gendered power plays in interaction are so often framed as humor: If the power move is challenged, the speaker’s intent can readily be denied.
Christine Griffin (1989, p. 173) recorded a conversation on a train in which three women were discussing their work as reference librarians. The male companion of one interrupted with the following joke: “What’s the difference between a feminist and a bin liner? A bin liner gets taken out once a week.” The joke, which was totally unrelated to the women’s topic, was greeted by silence, not laughter. Having interrupted the flow of
conversation, the man then introduced a different, unrelated topic and took an active part in the conversation. In this case, the intrusive use of disparaging humor allowed the speaker to gain attention and converse – tional control.